Perhaps the reason an encyclopedia of death has become the sole province of rock 'n' roll is best explained by the fact that not two years after the phrase "rock 'n' roll" was first coined, the body count started piling up. Clowning in a dressing room with a gun he thought wasn't loaded, R&B singer Johnny Ace became the first rock 'n' roll martyr. Somehow, the myth that he was playing Russian roulette made for a better story.
Between Ace's mishap and the Reaper's triple play on Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper, The Encyclopedia of Rock Obituaries (Omnibus Press) lists the deaths of such blues pioneers as Big Bill Broonzy, Tommy Johnson, Tiny Bradshaw, W.C. Handy, Walter Brown, Joe Hill Louis and Blind Willie McTell. Add to that the deaths of George Nelson of the Orioles and singer Chuck Willis, whose posthumous double-sided hit "What Am I Living For" backed with "Hang Up My Rock and Roll Shoes" would've made a great rock 'n' roll suicide note had he not actually died on the operating table from a bleeding stomach ulcer. The body count piled high and fast in those early years. Just four days after the Holly crash, Guitar Slim died of pneumonia. Then there's the near-fatal car crash of Sam Cooke and Lou Rawls, plus the auto accident that sidelined Carl Perkins' career and took the life of his brother Jay. In 1960, Eddie Cochran bought the farm and Gene Vincent went for a ride and nearly bought the farm next door. No wonder Little Richard gave up rock for the minister's cloth when his plane caught fire somewhere over the Philippines in 1957. The message is clear: If the rhythm doesn't get you, the transportation will.
Likewise, this hard-covered coroner's report will get you in its cold fingers and not let go. Since reading it, I've become a nuisance to friends and family alike, as my uncontrollably morbid fixation on this tomb tome has me death-obsessed. Nowadays, a conversation with me will usually segue into unsolicited observations like, "Did you know the brunette half of the Shangri-Las are dead?" Or "Remember Orion, the Elvis impersonator who always wore a mask like the Lone Ranger? Yeah, he's dead. Shot at a convenience store. They killed his ex-wife, too." No wonder the phone isn't ringing. I've become Barney Fife, yepping all this useless information as if I've been entrusted with the keys to the jailhouse while Sheriff Andy's in Raleigh.
Don't let my failings in decorum cast The Encyclopedia of Rock Obituaries in an unflattering light. Unlike other past ghoulish literary works like Rock and Roll Babylon, which sensationalized many of these same deaths by printing disturbing photos of Sam Cooke's shot-up carcass or Otis Redding's corpse being pulled out of icy Lake Monoma, Rock Obituaries carries not a single photo or illustration. Just dates, career summaries, causes of death and the sometimes eerie coincidences that accompany them. Like the fact that Redding's scheduled opening act for that ill-fated Wisconsin gig was a band called The Grim Reaper! Everybody say "eeeeyoooh . . ."
Because it sets itself as "an authoritative reference work," there are also no crass charts depicting how many people died of drugs, heart attacks or plane crashes. But I know you're all as curious as can be, and I've got plenty of free time, apparently. So here's the breakdown. A word of warning: People who enjoy snacking on cherries and are prone to heart attacks may find the following information extremely disturbing.
Top Causes for Rock 'n' Roll Deaths:
Heart Attacks, 187
Various Cancers, 182
Drug Overdose, 59
Plane Crash, 46
Liver Disease, 37
Car Crash, 34
Bleeding Ulcers, 8
Brain Hemorrhage, 5
Falling Down Stairs, 4
Lou Gehrig's Disease, 1
Choking on a Cherry Pit, 1
Choking on Ham Sandwich, 0
In an effort to further their archaic "rock is evil" argument, the Internet naysayers from www.biblebelievers.com (see related story) would still have you believe that drugs are rock's biggest killer, but it's good, old-fashioned heart attacks that top out the rock list at 187. And even Billy Graham has had one of those. Drug overdoses check in at a surprisingly low 59. Even the number of plane crash victims isn't unique to rock. If I was compiling a list of pilots, the number of fatalities there would be nearly as high.